In an 8-1 decision in Kansas v. Glover (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-556_e1pf.pdf), the United States Supreme Court potentially altered the basis for which an officer may conduct a traffic stop of a driver suspected of operating without a valid license.
Virginia courts have long held that before an officer may stop a vehicle based solely on information that the owner’s driver’s license is invalid, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that the owner is the driver. See Worley v. Commonwealth, an unpublished Court of Appeals opinion that provides a good summary of United States Supreme Court and Virginia precedent on the subject. Glover casts doubt on whether that continues to be good law in Virginia.
In Glover, a Kansas sheriff’s deputy ran a license plate and determined that the registered owner’s driver’s license was revoked. The parties stipulated that the officer “assumed” that the registered owner, Glover, was driving the vehicle and did not attempt to confirm his identity.
Rather than place the burden on the officer to confirm that the owner is the driver of the vehicle, the Supreme Court held that “when the officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle, the stop is reasonable.” The Court found that the officer made a “common sense” assumption that the registered owner was driving the truck and noted that the reasonable suspicion standard does not require an officer to rule out innocent conduct.
Justice Kagan’s concurring opinion offers an opportunity for attorneys hoping to distinguish Glover from the traffic stops in their own cases. Justice Kagan wrote that she joined the majority based on the facts of the case because Kansas law revokes driver’s licenses for dangerous or repeated driving violations. In her opinion, that fact increased the likelihood that the registered owner would be flouting the law by driving without a license.
She noted that her opinion would be different if the owner’s license had been suspended for actions like failure to pay child support or for failure to pay fines and costs. The majority opinion stressed the reasons that Kansas revokes, rather than merely suspends, one’s license. This interpretation, shared by Justice Sotomayor in her dissent and not refuted in the majority opinion, may provide a continuing window to challenge stops where the owner’s license is suspended rather than revoked. In addition, Justice Kagan suggested that the analysis should change when the vehicle has more than one registered owner, at least one of whom has a valid license or if there are facts about a particular officer’s knowledge of how often unlicensed drivers operate vehicles in his or her jurisdiction.
Virginia defense attorneys should continue to challenge traffic stops based on suspended licenses when the officer’s sole basis for the stop is that the registered owner’s license is suspended. In addition, in those cases where the registered owner’s license is revoked, attorneys should develop facts to distinguish their cases from the “bare bones” facts in Glover.
Richard Collins is an attorney with an office in Williamsburg, Virginia.
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